Boys on the Rock - John Fox
After Tim and Pete, I needed something soothing and easy to digest and this book did the trick. This is probably the most true-to-life account of a boy discovering his homosexuality that we’ve read. Told entirely in the first-person narrative by Billy Connors, the story skilfully shows a sixteen-year old boy’s struggle to understand why he is different: not enjoying the dating and general heterosexual sexual atmosphere of his contemporaries. He dates girls to satisfy his friends’ demands, but he fantasises about men. The fantasies become a reality when he meets Al, a college student.
Set in 1968, this is an America of changing values. Billy’s parents watch TV, blushing at a bra commercial, while their son is out smoking joints, drinking underage and having confused sex. You get the sense that things are falling apart but no one wants to discuss it, the generational gap a metaphor for the much wider gap between Billy and his parents: the sexual identity one.
Billy would have little guidance from his parents if he was sleeping with girls, but at least he’d have his friends and a world of cultural references to help him. The boys discuss nothing but sex with girls, and they are clearly using the bravado to ask and have answered important questions. Who can Billy talk to? His only knowledge of men who like other men is that they wear dresses and pretend to be women—neither of which he wants to do.
Then he meets Al. Their eyes literally meet through a window and something changes inside Billy. It’s intuitive, even though he hardly understands yet what it is. They progress through an easy friendship to a wonderful first kiss. However, as their relationship deepens, so does their awareness of the wider events in the country. Robert Kennedy’s assassination shocks them profoundly. The cracks in the fabric of the innocent world of the fifties are widening. It seems as if Billy and Al will fall into them and be swallowed whole. In an interesting analogy, Billy becomes a lifeguard for the summer. Will he be able to save their relationship?
Well worth a read, some very intense feeling and a great love story simply told.
Although short, little more than novella length, this book isn’t lightweight. It’s one of the most powerful coming out stories we’ve read. An incredibly real account of teenage confusion about identity and self awareness worked through to a satisfying albeit difficult conclusion. The narrative voice is spot-on, so you imagine the book is addressed directly to you.
Comparisons have been made to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I haven’t read that one, but it did remind me of Front Runner, and not just because the protagonist’s name is Billy.
Sadly it’s a first and only novel because the author died of AIDS. A stark reminder of the contrast between the promising time of its setting, and our darker world.
Told by 16 year old Billy Connors, who lives in New York City, the story recounts the tumultuous summer of 1968. Personal events seen against the explosive backdrop of a presidential election, the Viet Nam war, political assassination, youth culture and an equal rights movement that doesn’t yet extend to gay people. Billy speaks with an intensely personal voice, almost like non-fiction, a real teenager’s experience of growing up and learning to accept himself.
Billy attends a boys’ school. He’s a member of the swim team, with a girlfriend. He tells us about his sexual experiences. All perfectly normal. Except, Billy then reveals, he goes home to fantasise about boys. He’s an unreliable narrator: the dog he talks about doesn’t exist and he only had sex once, with his best friend’s girl. Cannily we’re drawn into Billy’s story so when he says he won’t lie to us any more we believe him. It’s the pivotal point because we realise he’s no longer lying to himself, no matter how uncomfortable the truth.
One day on the way home from school Billy sees a sign looking for volunteers for the McCarthy For President campaign in the window of an empty store. Billy joins because he’s attracted to the guy putting up the poster, Al DiCicco. He’s also terrified that in 2 years time when he’s 18 he’ll get drafted and sent to fight in Viet Nam. Eugene McCarthy was anti-war, a liberal politician persuaded to run for office against incumbent Lyndon Johnson when Robert Kennedy declined nomination. McCarthy’s success mobilising students led Kennedy to change his mind, with fatal consequences.
Billy and Al fall in love, both scared and uncertain how far they want to go. This has the authenticity of real experience. Billy’s parents can’t talk about sex with their son, and priests at school take delight in public humiliation . Billy is frightened his body will give away his secret desires. Longingly he watches twin brothers Evan & Kevin, incestuous relations hinted at by sensuous eroticism in their behaviour.
Billy turns to his swim coach, who gets it all wrong, thinking Billy seeks a cure not help on the how-to of gay sex. Billy realises he must be true to himself. He admires the twins’ ability not to care what anyone thinks, and is perceptive enough to see that an unhappy marriage like his parents’ isn’t the answer.
The book has very explicit sex scenes but they’re part of the story, loving and sizzlingly erotic. Billy is such a fine role model older teens should read the novel, but check it out first because it is graphic. Billy’s aunt is a terrific character. She knows about Billy and allows him and Al to stay with her by the beach in Jersey, commenting only when their sexual activities get so noisy she can’t sleep.
Billy isn’t like Al. He’s not a pragmatist and he wouldn’t make a very good politician because honesty and sincerity aren’t part of the job description. Billy’s journey of self-discovery leads to the realisation that being gay isn’t the problem; what other people think IS. There’s no choice about our sexuality, no right and wrong. As Billy says, “It’s what I am” and he likes how that feels. Ashamed of being gay, Al’s never going to risk a political career for Billy. Worse, he wants to feminise Billy to make their relationship acceptable to his masculine pride. But Billy won’t accept any bullshit from Al, who’s a coward. Billy is brave and true, willing follow his heart. Al feels the hunger but doesn’t have what it takes for love. Billy thinks it should be different with guys, and he’s right. Can you see why this is such a beautiful little book?
There’s a complicated back-and-forth timeline and a light conversational style that makes the dramatic conclusion more shocking. Maybe we should cut Al some slack. His more humble background means he has more to lose than Billy, and the price for coming out can be very high. The ending is abrupt and painful, as real life can be, yet there’s a message of hope that lifts the mood. Strength of character will see Billy through a life that’s never going to be easy. This is a wonderful book I can’t recommend highly enough.
Published by: St Martin's Press IBSN: 0312104332Buy from Lambda Rising from the States